Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wildlife Viewing in Rwanda

I have had the privilege of being spoiled by incredible wildlife experiences in Costa Rica and Peru.  Against that standard of comparison, the wildlife trekking in Rwanda was not as amazing as those two (notwithstanding that we were within several meters of gorillas).  That said, the Rwanda wildlife experience is very satisfactory.

1.  Gorillas.  Seeing the gorillas in situ is really cool.  They are actually not THAT huge.  The lead silverback we saw (from the Susa group) was maybe 2 meters tall and 500 pounds.  (In contrast, the average NFL lineman has got to be 6'6 and 325 pounds.)  So, while a gorilla can rip you limb from limb, they are not as physically imposing as I thought.

One needs to arrange to purchase a permit to visit the gorillas in advance.  These now cost $750 per person (think of this mainly as a contribution to supporting wildlife conservation).  The treks to the different habituated groups are divided into medium, hard, and easy.  We asked for a medium one, because we like hiking.  But what Rwandans might mean by medium, we would think should be rated hard, and hard must be extremely hard.

As noted, we visited the Susa group.  This group was located at 10,500 foot elevation.  If you live at sea level as I do, the altitude will kill you.  Now I'm not the most svelte individual and I would say that I'm only somewhat fit (and am age 51).  Our hike took several hours in a nearly vertical ascent of some 2000 feet (I thought it was much more than that actually -- I had an altimeter so the figures here are accurate).  For $10, you hire a porter, who will carry your backpack and offer a helping hand.  Purchasing this service also helps the local economy so I think that you should do this even if you don't think it will be necessary.  One porter per person. 

I stopped our group many times on the way up to catch my breath.  Don't be embarassed to do this (remember the outrageous cost you paid to "enjoy" this experience).  My 19 year old son, who has run a marathon, described our hike as "difficult, but not a challenge."  For me, it was a "challenge" -- fine to do, but not easy, given the combination of the steepness of the ascent and the effect of altitude.  Either would have been difficult for me, but both together really knocked me back.

Definitely have at least two bottles of water available per person (at least one liter total).  You must wear long pants and probably long sleeves, and bring a rain jacket (not a poncho) with you -- but the rain jacket is used mainly for the last portion of the hike when you are traversing the area near the gorillas to protect you against the stinging nettles you'll invariably encounter. 

You are supposed to remain 7 meters away from the gorillas but this is an aspiration.  You more likely will be more like 4 meters away from several, and you might have, as we did, the silverback Alpha-male stroll past you to establish dominance.  We saw a couple month old baby gorilla and one-year old twins.  We were able to see maybe 1/3d of the total group of this large family.

We thought it was cool to see the gorillas, but not a blow-your-mind experience (given our prior nature experiences). 

My pretty strong advice is to take the easiest hike.  The payoff is similar either way, and the hiking portion is really not that important (or is disproportionate in difficulty to the payoff).

2.  Golden Monkeys.  In an effort to develop an additional stop for tourists at the Volcanoes National Park, one can trek to the golden monkeys.  This is OK.  It's $100 per person fee.  The monkeys we saw were in a dense bamboo forest, which means that it's hard to get great photos.  You spend an hour with the monkeys, and it's fine.  They are reasonably cute but while somewhat of a unique species they are not as interesting as, say, the colubus monkey or others.  Don't feel like your missing something if you elect not to do this.  On the other hand, if you're in the area and want to linger an extra day (given the difficult of getting there), the golden-monkey experience is fine.

3.  Chimpanzees.  We went to see the chimpanzees in Nyungwe.  Note that there two departure points to choose from, one very near the Nyungwe Forest Lodge where we stayed and the other at the main Uwinka center.  The hike we did was very difficult; at a fast pace we went down to where the chimps were, and this was a pretty difficult hike down.  The hike up also was difficult.  We heard of others having a better experience than we did, but the chimps we saw were mainly pretty high in the trees, though one did get sort of low.  Photography was well-nigh impossible.  (A gentleman we were with had a very large lens, and said of the 300 shots he took there were maybe 2 or 3 good ones.)  You have to leave whichever center you are departing from at around 5 am. 

4.  Other monkeys in Nyungwe.  We did a colubus monkey walk, which was very pleasant and we saw the monkeys.  You also will probably see L'hoest monkeys and others.  You should be able to get decent photos. 

5. Birdwatching.  The birding was pretty unsatisfactory, though one always needs a bit of luck.  But compared to Peru or Costa Rica, it was hard to see the few species we viewed, which we high up in the canopy generally.  In preparation for the trip, I purchased a guide to East African birds; this was totally unnecessary given how few birds we actually saw (and the two best sightings were of females lacking interesting plumage or coloration). 

6.  Canopy Walk in Nyungwe.  This is a pure tourist trap.  I would recommend blowing this off, even though it is the second-highest one in the world or in Africa.  I don't have a particular fear of heights (though I have a healthy fear of landing), and the canopy walkway is sufficiently well constructed that it is not death-defying.  In theory, one should be able to see birds better from this spot, but in practice, no.  Given that everyone will ask you whether you did the canopy walk, it's hard to avoid doing this, but again you should not feel like you're missing something truly special if you don't do this.

7.  Nyungwe generally.  The analogy that springs to mind about the Nyungwe Forest to me is the Smokey Mountains in the US.  You hike up and down through pretty thickly forested area, on reasonably well maintained paths.  The forest is dense, but is more like a decidious forest on the East Coast than an exotic african jungle ala Tarzan.  This forest is nice to hike in, but none of the hiking was particularly special (note we did not do the waterfall hike).  If we had not stayed at such a nice place as the Nyungwe Forest Lodge, I probably would not have been very keen on the experience, even if it is certainly acceptable.

8.  Orchids and Epiphytes.  I love orchids, and again I've been spoiled by trips in Costa Rica and Peru.  July is not the right season, but we didn't really see any interesting flowers.  To the extent there are epiphytes, they are high up, so at ground level you won't see much.  This was very disappointing for me, given that Nyungwe advertises this as one of its features.

9.  Bugs and Butterflies.  We saw one or two interesting bettles and one cool caterpiller.  Again, July is probably not the right time, and again I've been spoiled in this regard especially by Costa Rica and its unbelieveable profusion of butterflies.

10.  Miscellaneous animals.  We didn't see interesting spiders or other ground animals.  (There are two squirrel species in Nyungwe, one of which is kinda ok.)  Not any wierd "walking sticks" or other strange insect life.  My son did get bitten by army ants.  The mandibles on the "soldier/sentry" army ants are impressive (close to 25 percent of the overall body size or more I'd guess).  No frogs or centipedes.

11.  Quality of the Guiding.  In every place, one is required to hire a guide, which are available at the site.  I believe they see their role more as leading a walk than in being naturalist teachers.  Again, I've been spoiled by having two off-the-charts naturialist guides in Costa Rica (at Tortaguerro) and in Peru (the same person in the cloud forest and in the Amazon).  Of course, not everyone wants a lecture on the biome during a hike, but I do.

12.  Wildlife Photography.  Rwanda is strangely un-photogenic.  As noted, it is difficult to get great views of most of the animals, there is not an incredible profusion of wildlife or flora, and the nature of the dense forest and the topography interfere with getting incredible photos.  Again, I'm in particular comparing Rwanda to Peru in this regard, where in the latter instance the cloud forest and the Amazon river and jungle are incredible.

13.  Safari-style. We did not go to eastern Rwanda where there is savannah and more traditional lions, elephants, zebras, and giraffes.  That said, I have been told that the places to do such safaris are Botswana and Kenya.  Several people we met were en route to or from safari destinations.

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